- The Washington Times - Sunday, April 22, 2007

MIAMI — Standing in center field, Ryan Church wasn’t sure what had just happened. He saw Matt Chico wind up to throw a first-inning pitch to Josh Willingham. And then he saw the ball sail to his left and land in the second row of the stands behind the first-base dugout.

“First time I’ve seen it,” Church said.

On the mound, Chico knew exactly what had happened. He lost the grip on his changeup and wound up uncorking the ball nowhere close to its intended target, some 45 degrees offline, the signature moment of the Washington Nationals’ 9-3 loss to the Florida Marlins last night.

“Kind of one of those where I went back and didn’t have a tight enough grip and it came right out of my hand,” he said.

Now, the scary part: This wasn’t the first time the 23-year-old left-hander had done this. And it won’t be the last.

“It usually happens to me about three to four times a year,” Chico said. “I’ve done it so many times now that I just shake it off and concentrate on what I’m doing after that.”

The Nationals can live with the occasional blooper-reel pitch from Chico, but they can only hope they don’t have to live through many more nightmarish outings like this one from their young pitching prospect.

They know he’s going to have some rough nights during the course of his rookie season. They would just like to avoid the really ugly ones.

“He had a bad game,” manager Manny Acta said. “We made our decision. We know the kid is going to take some lumps here and there, and we’re going to have to live with it.”

It was tough to watch Chico struggle to complete the simplest of pitching tasks last night: throwing the ball over the plate, something that became a massive chore. The rookie left-hander issued seven walks (including two to the opposing pitcher), uncorked two wild pitches (including the one that was sure to end up on “SportsCenter”) and threw more balls (59) than strikes (53) during a labored, 42/3-inning outing.

That kind of pitching display wasn’t going to be easy to overcome, and the Nationals didn’t put up much of a fight in losing handily before a Dolphin Stadium crowd of 24,107.

Given an opportunity to move into third place in the NL East with a win, Washington (6-12) instead was done in by a litany of pitching, defensive and offensive mistakes the likes of which Acta hadn’t seen since his team’s first week of the season.

There were no shortage of mistakes made by the Nationals. Four pitchers issued nine walks, Four pitchers issued nine walks, two wild pitches and committed an error. The offense stranded nine men on base. Fundamentals were at a premium.

Still, the key player in this game was Chico (1-2), who came in needing to give Acta some innings after Friday night’s 14-inning game but got off to a horrendous start and never recovered.

How off was Chico? He issued back-to-back walks to Hanley Ramirez and Dan Uggla, then struck out Aaron Boone before heaving the infamous wild pitch to Willingham that landed in the stands.

Amazingly, Chico kept his composure and came back to strike out Willingham with a sequence that included a well-placed changeup, the same pitch he botched earlier in the at-bat.

“I don’t want him to think he can’t go back to it,” catcher Brian Schneider said. “And it was a good pitch.”

Unfortunately, Chico’s nightmare was just beginning. After the Willingham strikeout, he issued his third walk of the inning, then served up a two-run single to Cody Ross after falling behind in the count, 3-1.

Hoping to rebound in the second inning, Chico instead remained in a rut. He walked the opposing pitcher on four pitches, a cardinal sin in and of itself that was only made worse when Ramirez followed with a two-run homer to left.

By the fifth inning, the Nationals were in full survivor mode. His bullpen spent after throwing a combined 192/3 innings the previous three days, Acta had no choice but to try to coax one more inning out of a floundering Chico. The rookie lefty couldn’t get it done, issuing two singles, a wild pitch and two walks (including another free pass to the opposing pitcher) before Acta decided he had seen enough.

“Obviously, you can’t walk seven guys and the pitcher twice in the same game and get away with what he got away with,” Acta said. “He got away with only five runs. The damage could have been worse.”

And because of that, the Nationals were still in the game, trailing only 4-3 at one point. But they couldn’t take advantage of Marlins starter Anibal Sanchez, who was clearly off his game, and add to their run total.

Washington stranded men on base in the second, two more in the third, one in the fourth, two in the fifth and two in the seventh, continuing a season-long inability to pile on runs.

“It’s a fairly young team,” Acta said. “We still have to learn as a team that we have to take advantage of those situations.”

Want more Nats? Check out Nats Home Plate.

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